Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A little climate rant: an idiot is an idiot is an idiot




It was yesterday that I gave a talk on climate at a meeting in Florence. It was a rather formal meeting, in the "Aula Magna" of the University of Florence, and my talk was part of a multidisciplinary series of lectures. I gave my talk  to a public mainly composed of faculty members, although only some of them were physical scientists.

It was not a specialized talk, but I tried to explain the basic elements of what we know about the earth's climate. How more than a hundred years of research has led to developing a new understanding of what makes climate change. I said that it is a true scientific revolution, on a par with several others as - say - cosmology; linking to a talk given just before by a colleague.

I showed data about how, over the geological eras, greenhouse gases have been the main element (although not the only one) determining the earth's surface temperature. And I showed how temperatures are rapidly rising now as a result of human-generated carbon emissions. I described the risks we are facing, and the importance of acting as soon as possible. And I showed my own work on modeling the energy transition to renewables.

And that was it. I received some applause, then the conference went on. Later on, there was the coffee break; the speakers and the public collected in the open air, in the courtyard of the University's central building. And, there, someone, a colleague, patted me on the shoulder. He smiled at me and he said, "See, Ugo, how cold is it today? Don't you think we need some global warming?"

Sometimes, I have lost my temper in these occasions. And they tell me that when I truly lose my temper I am not nice - which I think it is the way things should be. This time, however, I just smiled and I moved onward. But words were ringing in my head, "an idiot is an idiot is an idiot", something that Gertrude Stein could have said hadn't she been thinking of roses, instead.

You could say, "it was just a joke." Yes, but imagine that you were a surgeon, and you gave a talk at a conference on  - say - childhood cancer. Then, at the coffee break, a colleague of yours pats on your shoulder and says, "See how many children are there? Isn't it good that some are killed by tumors?"

An idiot is an idiot is an idiot. The problem is that there isn't just one of them.




15 comments:

  1. Ugo, no one can argue that CO2, CH4 and temp don't correlate over the longer term. And there are arguments for the gases to be the driver upwards (and arguments the other way - warm seas hold less CO2). But what are the reasons for the repeating 100,000 year cycles? Why does temperature precede rises in the gases in the ice cores? What makes a cool period like the little ice age of 1300 to 1800AD?

    Spend the same amount of effort reviewing the data from the warming sceptic point of view, and you will see why people aren't convinced of AGW.

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  2. Fine. So, spend some time reviewing the data of those arguing that childhood cancer can be cured with bicarbonate, and you'll see why people aren't convinced that cancer is so bad as some say.

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  3. Point of view doesn't really factor into it. As with creationism, being a climate change "skeptic" requires ignoring a lot of the evidence and misrepresenting a lot of the rest.

    Once you've really studied the field and are aware of the overall evidence, there's just no way to look at it from the "skeptics" point of view. That would require forgetting a lot.

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  4. An itiot is an idiot. Often people's understanding follow the beliefs and sometimes people are called Homo Sapiens (man the wise) but their not.

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  5. I don’t know if your colleague was joking or not. If he was then he has a poor sense of humor — that’s all.

    But your post raises an issue that needs to be addressed. The normal, reasonable citizen — the ‘Man on the Clapham omnibus’ — is not likely to attend such a talk, particularly if it uses words such as ‘paleoclimate’. But he or she could very reasonably challenge your argument on the following lines.

    1. The temperature varies by much more than 2° from day to day and week to week. Why does this small change matter so much? It doesn’t sound like a big deal.
    2. Scientists are always raising the alarm and then changing their minds — usually when listing the foods that we should or should not eat. Why should I believe climate scientists? What if they are wrong? It sounds as if we could be making some very expensive mistakes.

    Now I know that you know the answers to these responses but the vast majority of people are not following climate change web sites; they are leading their normal, day to day lives. So they brush off the alarmist predictions.

    Having said which it seems as if the mood is changing. People communicate through stories and personal experiences, not PowerPoint presentations. Therefore when I talk to skeptics I don’t bother with scientific forecasts — I simply mention the California drought or the loss of low-lying land in Virginia and Florida. Even some of the most skeptical people realize that something is going on. You state in a previous post that the recent COP 21 conference was, to some extent, a success. I think that it this direct experience that is changing the way people think.

    Another point is that one of the basic rules of selling is not to be negative — wherever possible. You try not to say, “If you don’t buy my product or service then something bad will happen”. You say, “If you do buy my product or service then something good will happen.” Of course the two statements are merely two sides of the same coin but they make a huge difference in how people perceive the message. Yet the climate community has focused almost entirely on the threat. “If we don’t take action then bad things will happen.” It is much more effective to say, where possible, “If we act to reduce climate change then the quality of life will improve”.

    Related to the above is that we need to meet people half way. Our winter last year was much colder than normal. So people said, half jokingly, “Whatever happened to global warming?” The response should be on the lines of, “Yes, it does seem strange — maybe you have a good point. Let’s talk about it.”

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    Replies
    1. Honestly, ChemEng, I think you didn't get the point of my post. The person I described in the post was a colleague and he had listened to my whole talk. And that makes him NOT the average Joe in the street who doesn't "follow climate change web sites." And that's the whole point. What makes me lose my temper is not the ordinary confused guy; whom I can very well understand. What drives me crazy are people who have the intellectual tools to understand what we are talking about. And yet, they refuse to understand what they are perfectly able to understand. Fear? Prejudice? Ideological blindness? The Dunning Kruger syndrome? Something, anyway.

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    2. I can understand your frustration. I have a colleague and good friend who was an early member of the Texas Tea Party and attends rallies such as the one that Ted Cruz held after he tried to shut down the government. My friend is also a Ph.D. engineer and, with respect to technology, very smart and forward thinking. A few years ago he denied climate change issues — now he is silent. Too much evidence is piling up. The Republican Party desperately needs people like my friend — he has the “street cred” and so could be very persuasive. Strangely, I find that he and I, in spite of our very different backgrounds, often arrive at the same conclusion as to what to do.

      Why do intelligent people put up a barrier? I sometimes wonder if it might be that they understand that an effective response is going to result in a drastic reduction in our standard of living. Also it takes great courage to publicly admit that you have changed your mind. Some years ago I did not buy into climate change issues and, even now, feel somewhat sheepish about speaking on the topic.

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    3. http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/author/kahan

      Kahan has an explanation of how the most educated are actually the most likely to dig in and find evidence to doubt AGW.

      I went searching his posts but I'm not certain I've found the one I recall that best gets at this phenomenon.

      It was some time ago that I read it.
      It might be this one:

      http://www.culturalcognition.net/browse-papers/the-tragedy-of-the-risk-perception-commons-culture-conflict.html

      excerpt: On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased.


      These are related:

      http://www.nature.com/news/why-we-are-poles-apart-on-climate-change-1.11166

      http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2015/12/11/scientists-identity-protective-cognition-well-on-the-one-han.html

      Sam Gunsch

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    4. To add something to this discussion, a few years ago I was invited to speak to a class in a high school. Attending, there was also the science teacher. And after I had finished speaking, he rose up and he started telling me about things like "Mars is warming, too; and there is a "rebound" from the last ice age...."

      I truly saw red. I don't remember having ever been so angry in other occasions in my life. This idiot, idiot, idiot..... Knowledge comes with a responsibility and if you teach science to young people you have a responsibility to teach it well, at least. And you have much more responsibility because you teach to people who will suffer the most from climate change, because they are so young, and you don't care because you can play idiotic intellectual games knowing that you won't see the worst that will happen.

      I mean, I think it was in the book by Eric Maria Remarque, "all quiet on the western front" where he has the character of the teacher who pushes his students to enroll in the army to die for the country, knowing that he himself is safe. That was what came to my mind.

      I told him..., well, you can imagine what I told him. I think in that school they still remember that.

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    5. I wish it was recorded and we could watch it lol.
      I think your collegues are confused even if they should know better (like this teacher?), or they are trolling you (like the conference guy).

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  6. I wonder about Dunning-Krüger effect...

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  7. I remember being in 2nd year high school geography class, and responding in my own words to a teachers question about what was the difference between climate and weather, as it is implied by our language usage, and possibly by evolutionary selection, since any migratory skills imply the ability to choose suitable places according to climate and season. For instance migratory birds, herbivores, and their predators surely live the difference. Not being able to tell the difference implies we are desensitized to nature, by upbringing and lack of natural selection. This may be rectified in the near future.

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  8. I remember being in 2nd year high school geography class, and responding in my own words to a teachers question about what was the difference between climate and weather, as it is implied by our language usage, and possibly by evolutionary selection, since any migratory skills imply the ability to choose suitable places according to climate and season. For instance migratory birds, herbivores, and their predators surely live the difference. Not being able to tell the difference implies we are desensitized to nature, by upbringing and lack of natural selection. This may be rectified in the near future.

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  9. Thank you for relating reactions on presenting and eliciting conversation on the topic of Climate Change. Such conversations in my realm have generally been so emotionally charged and end up no where that I opt out of most. In the year 2000 my passion for attempting to awaken many to my perceived risk as well as potential solutions led me to present at many conferences and such. I ended up feeling much like Cassandra must have. Thank you for your blog. Michael

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  10. Kudos to you, Ugo, for talking about this. It's a frustration we all experience.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)